Theresa May’s decision to take military action against Syria without a vote could cost her

The Prime Minister has bypassed MPs and backed an intervention supported by just 22 per cent of the public. 

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Theresa May is not a lover of parliamentary scrutiny. The Prime Minister last year tried (and failed) to trigger the UK’s exit from the European Union without a vote. Britain has now joined US and French airstrikes against Syria without MPs’ approval.

The government's action is not legally contentious. As I explained earlier this week, under the Royal Prerogative, the Prime Minister can approve any military action without a prior parliamentary vote or debate (as David Cameron did in Libya in 2011). On matters of war, Britain’s parliament is one of the weakest in the democratic world.

But May’s decision is immensely politically contentious. Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and some Tory MPs are furious that she failed to consult parliament. Only 22 per cent of the British public, according to this week’s YouGov poll, support military action. May has joined forces with Donald Trump, the most erratic and unpopular US president in recent history, and reportedly backed swift strikes in order to evade parliamentary scrutiny (MPs return from the Spring recess on Monday).

The government is emphasising that the action is limited: a punishment for President Assad’s remorseless use of chemical weapons, not an attempt to overthrow his regime. Indeed, by stating so explicitly that they are not seeking “regime change”, the US, the UK and France have accepted - more clearly than ever before - that Assad will continue to rule Syria. 

“This is not about intervening in a civil war,” said May in a 2am statement. “It is not about regime change. It is about a limited and targeted strike that does not further escalate tensions in the region and that does everything possible to prevent civilian casualties.” 

May believes that Britain has a moral and strategic duty to act alongside its Western allies. A hundred missiles were fired at three regime targets: a scientific research centre in Damascus, a chemical weapons storage facility west of Homs, and another storage site and command post nearby. The UK will be relieved that the mission, at first sight, was not botched and that there were no known casualties. 

But the West faces the same dilemma that Trump did last year: limited military action risks proving ineffective and may fail to deter Assad's use of chemical weapons (as Trump's last one-off strike did). A deeper intervention, however, increases the risk of blowback. 

The irony is that May would likely have won a parliamentary vote on the issue. A significant number of Conservative and Labour MPs now regret not supporting military action in 2013. But after Cameron's humiliation over Syria, May was not prepared to risk becoming only the second prime minister since 1782 to lose a vote on a matter of war and peace. The government may seek - and win - retrospective approval, as Cameron did over Libya in 2011 (though May has given no signal so far). But having acted without a democratic mandate, the legitimacy of British action will be permanently questioned.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.